After a year of being in the artisanal chicken program, Tony and Mandy Willemse are happy with their experience so far and are already hoping to expand. The Willemses are growing 3,000 chickens annually on their 400-acre farm just outside Parkhill, Ontario. They also raise hogs and grow cash crops.
“We’re just trying to decide which direction we want the business to go in,” says Mandy, noting that there are many options, including supplying chefs and restaurants, wholesaling and selling at farmers’ markets.
They went into the new Chicken Farmers of Ontario (CFO) program to supplement their income and to get a foot in the door of the industry. With two daughters, and another little one on the way, Mandy wanted to be at home more so she left her sales job of 11 years.
They saw going the artisanal route as a more affordable option than having to build a whole new barn and buy quota, as commercial growers do. The business is a real family affair. Its name is Little Sisters Chicken in honour of their children, and because the girls - aged six and seven - help out on the farm.
The new program was designed for people like the Willemses - who are interested in growing between 600 and 3,000 chickens annually for select target markets.
The Willemses started out wholesaling their pasture-raised, GMO-free and antibiotic-free chickens to outlets in London, New Hamburg and Stratford. Over the summer of 2016, they directly sold their birds at markets in Grand Bend and Bayfield.
“We weren’t going to go into the farmers’ markets, but are glad we did - we moved a lot of product and gained a lot of loyal customers that way,” Mandy says. “We’re looking to sell to people who will spend a bit more money and are interested in buying local food.”
Mandy has always been interested in the local food movement, and her background in sales and marketing has come in handy, since farmers in the artisanal program are responsible for selling their own birds.
“You have to do the research and approach people on your own, and cold-call” Mandy says. Little Sisters also has a professionally designed website, and a presence on Facebook.
Already being in farming helped, too. The Willemses had a barn that they converted from raising pigs to housing chickens.
Tony and Mandy recommend the program as an addition to an existing farm or as a small business. They say that it does take a lot of work, and not to expect big returns right away.
But they say that CFO staff are very helpful with advice on meeting the program’s requirements, and they are enjoying the rewards of building a family business that supplies fresh, high-quality chicken to satisfied customers.
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